In 1880, Charles Sethness, a 25 year old self-educated immigrant, started a flavor and syrup business in Chicago. Within a few years, he was heating sugar in iron kettles to produce caramel color for whiskey. Today, his grandsons and great grandsons run the Sethness Products Company, the world’s leading supplier of caramel color. Although the single largest use of caramel color is soft drinks, it is also used in an incredible number of other foods.
Today, caramel color is manufactured by heating corn
syrup, usually under
pressure, in large stainless steel reactors. Coloring is a tricky
since food color must be stable for up to a year, under very harsh
of acidity, salinity and carbonation. I can remember finding a can of
at the back of a cupboard where it had hidden for several years. When I
it into a glass, it was absolutely clear and quite flat. I guess the
color and the fizz gave up. There are four classes of caramel color
on chemical additives:
Class I Caramel Color (no additives with low sulfites)
Class II Caramel Color (sulfite additives with very high sulfites)
Class III Caramel Color (ammonia additives with low sulfites)
Class IV Caramel Color (sulfite and ammonia with very high sulfites)
What do I mean by "very high sulfites"? How about 2,000 ppm! The
Demons are very proud. Fortunately, caramel color is quite intense and
doesn’t take much to color a food. But even in small doses, caramel
color can drive the effective sulfur oxide content of a food into
of micrograms. When caramel color is used, it is always listed on the
label. So you know it’s in there but you don’t know the class and
corresponding sulfur level. To bring order to this scramble, I have
five types of caramel color based on their application.
Caramel Color Table
(based on the total weight of the colored food)
|Liquids||CCL||Beverages, syrups, preserves||0.34 ppm|
|Semi-solid||CCS||Soups, gravies, sauce, noodles||0.42|
|Bakery||CCB||Dark cakes, breads, cookies||1.7|
|Condiment||CCC||Relish, marinades, condiments||3.4|
|Powders||CCP||Dry seasoning powders||6.3|
Normally, SOx values are based on the weight of the sulfited ingredient. However, the SOx values in the above table are based on the total weight of the food that is colored. This is because it is hard to estimate the tiny weight of colorant from a food label. The table makes this easier since all you need to know is the weight of the colored food. Let’s say you want to eat a slice of double dark chocolate cake weighing 40 grams. If you do, you will also eat about 40 x 1.7 = 68 micrograms of effective sulfur oxide. If the cake is lighter in color, you might want to cut that number in half. That’s all there is to using the table.
The caramel color table is a severe simplification of the real world. It will not tell you the actual amount of sulfur preservatives in the food, only the average over many foods. For instance, the chocolate cake could actually have half or twice the average value. It could be even worse. So this table just gets your calculation into the right ballpark, as sports-loving scientists like to say. The table was created by statistically averaging manufacturer’s recommendations then applying a scaling factor determined from headache tests.